Category Archives: US Folk/Country
Willie Nelson wasn’t exactly what you’d call an overnight sensation.
In the mid-50’s he took a few shots at breaking into the music business via songwriting, DJ’ing and making a few recordings—supplementing his meager income with gigs as a dishwasher and peddler of encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners. After a few so-so-years in various locales, he decided to try his luck in Nashville. None of the labels were interested, but he made an important connection with fellow songwriter Hank Cochran, opening up opportunities to pitch some of his songs to name artists. Faron Young and Ray Price both recorded Willie’s compositions, but his first big break came when Patsy Cline decided to record “Crazy,” which became the second biggest jukebox hit of all time (right after “Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog”). Willie then signed with Liberty and managed to place a couple of singles on the country charts, but his albums went nowhere. Chet Atkins then stepped in a brought Willie into the fold at RCA, but the change in labels didn’t do much to increase Willie’s standing in the public. He was a player, but not a marquee-level player.
He would soon figure out that the problem was that the labels wouldn’t let Willie Nelson be Willie Nelson—and that he was a willing accomplice to that crime.
I had great respect for Chet Atkins’s musicianship and accomplishments as a guitarist and producer, but in working with Chet the now eluded us. Because Chet was convinced I could be a superstar, it was hard to walk away from his operation. I had stars in my eyes. Always had, and probably always will. I wanted more. I wanted the most and the biggest and the best. Chet saw my ambition and, rather than temper it, he excited it with a promising prospect: that his way of producing would get me what I sought. Yet his way of producing, for all its technical wonders, fenced me in. I knew it, but, blinded by ambition, I accepted his formula.
Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story (p. 180). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
Chet’s “way of producing” was the Nashville Sound, the recording style that supplanted good ol’ honky-tonk by dressing up country music in the smooth strings and choruses of Easy Listening pop songs. Some artists thrived with that approach—Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold and others—but it was hardly a fit for Willie Nelson. “I was still caught up in a system—the Nashville music assembly line—where conformity was mandatory, and where it seemed to come with string sections and choirs of angels.” (ibid, p. 181)
Sometimes it takes a disaster or two to give us that whack-upside-the-head that leads to a course correction. In the early 70s, following a divorce, a fire that destroyed his ranch in Tennessee and continuing frustration with the lack of progress in his career, Willie moved back to his home state of Texas, declined to renew his contract with RCA and briefly retired from the music business. A move to Austin—a seriously happening place in the early 70s—coupled with an offer to buy a partial interest in the new Texas Opry House—rejuvenated Willie’s spirit and rekindled his interest in music. He was finally playing the music he wanted to play, drawing crowds from all age groups and reveling in his new-found freedom. Willie then signed with Atlantic, where Jerry Wexler encouraged Willie to be Willie. He released two studio albums—Shotgun Willie and Phases in Stages—that earned critical praise and modestly increased sales. Things were definitely looking up for Willie Nelson.
And just when it seemed that all the pieces were falling into place, Atlantic decided to phase out its Nashville operations in September 1974, forcing Willie to look for another home. Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler graciously released Willie from his contract and suggested he reach out to Columbia, a label with a strong presence in the Music City. Willie did just that, but by this time, he had his priorities straight:
I went with Columbia, the biggest record company in the world. This signing, though, was different. In the past, I had no stipulations. It was just, Give me the money. But my experience with Jerry Wexler had shown me that I could—and should—control whatever happened in the studio. I needed to have the creative freedom to mold my music and shape my sound in whatever form felt right to me.
When the suits at Columbia heard my demand, they hesitated. They had their own Nashville machine with a strong track record of turning out hits. They asked my manager, “Who is Willie Nelson to challenge our ways?”
“Tell them I’m not challenging anything,” I said. “Tell them it’s simply my way or the highway.”
I got my way.
Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story (pp. 240-241). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
His first project for Columbia came from a suggestion made by his then-wife Connie as they drove back to Texas from a ski vacation in Steamboat Springs, Colorado: a western concept album centered around the classic song “Red Headed Stranger.” Willie loved the idea and went straight to work, writing and selecting the songs that would provide the backstory for the tale told in the original. When he was ready to record, he decided to take full advantage of his hard-earned right to control the process:
When it came time to record, I think Columbia expected me to fly into Nashville, New York, or L.A. and cut the songs in a state-of-the-art studio with triple-scale sidemen. Instead, I asked Mickey Raphael to find us some low-key place off the beaten track. He told me about Autumn Sound in Garland, a sleepy suburb east of Dallas. I used my own band. Bucky Meadows dropped by and played both piano and guitar. We did it down and dirty. The arrangements were lean. The accompaniment behind my voice was sparse. We cut every song in just a few takes. I was modeling the style on old albums made by Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb where all you heard was a singer and a guitar. The feeling couldn’t have been more relaxed. When we were through, I was satisfied that the preacher’s story had been told right.
Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story (p. 244-5). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition
No strings, no choruses, not the slightest whiff of the Nashville Sound. Willie had even instructed the engineer to remove all of the EQ—an unheard-of act of recording heresy. The suits were not happy.
But when the chief Columbia bigwig heard the tracks, he said, “Why are you turning in a demo?” “Ain’t no demo,” I explained. “This is the finished product.” “Can’t be. It’s too rough. It’s too raw. It does not sound like a finished record.” “What’s a finished record supposed to sound like?” “Anything but this. The songs feel disconnected. The mood is too down. And the sound is far too flat. You need to go back in and polish it.” “That ain’t gonna happen,” I said. “You’re shooting yourself in the foot, Willie.” “Maybe so, but the contract couldn’t be plainer. I turn in the music I wanna turn in. Your job is to sell it.” “You’re making our job impossible.” “Well, let’s see what the public has to say.”
Had they been aware of the interaction, the public would have emphatically endorsed Waylon Jennings’ depiction of Columbia president Bruce Lindall as a “tone-deaf, tin-eared sonofabitch” for suggesting that Red Headed Stranger be sent to Nashville producer Billy Sherill for overdubbing. As for Mr. Sherill, he had the foresight to comment, “Did he make this in his living room? It’s a piece of shit! It sounds like he did this for about two bucks. It’s not produced.”
In the end, it was Willie over the suits by a landslide. Red Headed Stranger was his first album to hit #1. Willie then proceeded to rub it in with his chart performance on his next six albums—#1, #1, #2, #1, #1, #3—all recorded under his full artistic control.
I love it when the good guys win.
Red Headed Stranger was Willie Nelson’s eighteenth studio album, released a few months before his forty-second birthday. If you give him credit for embarking on a musical career at the age of seven (when he wrote his first song), it took him thirty-five years to make it to the top.
Those thirty-five years did not go to waste, for during that period Willie developed the encyclopedic knowledge of country music and a credible familiarity with gospel hymns and popular songs that made Red Headed Stranger possible. Red Headed Stranger features a carefully-constructed narrative consisting of Willie Nelson originals and covers of songs composed by others, carefully welded together to form the backstory and aftermath of the tale related in “Red Headed Stranger,” with the keystone song at the center of the piece. This may seem like an unlikely path to building a coherent narrative (to say nothing of the royalty dollars he pissed away by not starting from scratch), but Willie “felt the story deeply” and more than anything else, that orientation ensured “that the preacher’s story had been told right.” If another writer’s song was a better fit than something Willie could come up with, he went with the sure thing.
If you’d never heard Red Headed Stranger and were only familiar with the song “Red Headed Stranger” as covered by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, Willie’s identification of the stranger as a preacher would seem baffling. The creator of the lyrics, Edith Lindeman, never identified the stranger as a preacher, and as would befit a man of mystery, never divulged his occupation. But according to It’s a Long Story, Willie’s initial reaction to his wife’s suggestion was to envision the story as an old cowboy movie: “I could picture this old preacher who murdered his wife and spent the rest of his life wandering the land, looking for consolation that never comes.” (ibid)
Hmm. That’s odd. I thought preachers were supposed to be followers of the Prince of Peace. Why on earth would Willie make this triple-murderer (he offs another broad in the keystone song) a man of the cloth?
Let’s find out!
The introduction to “Time of the Preacher” is a fascinating piece of work. While the chords themselves (E-B7-G-D-A-E) would not necessarily combine to form a declining figure, each of the instruments (guitars, bass, piano) emphasize a declining note pattern pulled from those chords. As we associate “up” with “happy” and “down” with “sad,” the musical introduction communicates a sense of foreboding, warning the listener that tragedy lies ahead.
After a moment of silence, we hear Willie Nelson’s voice, bathed in the natural reverb of the studio, soon to be accompanied by raw acoustic guitar with thumb on the root note followed by a simple strum. While I can understand how a self-styled professional music producer could define the sound as demo quality, that so-called pro would have to be entirely immune to the emotive power of Willie Nelson’s voice. From the moment he sings the first line—“It was the time of the preacher”—he has my complete attention and holds it all the way through the song. Jerry Wexler told Willie that his phrasing reminded him of Ray Charles and Sinatra: “Like you, they’re great proponents of rubato—elongating one note, cutting off another, swinging with an elastic sense of time only the jazz artists understand.” Nice compliment, but rubato is the cold definition of a mechanical technique. What’s behind the rubato is what counts, and what drives Ray, Frank and Willie to vary their phrasing is their ability to fully immerse themselves in a song—to really feel the lyrics and the music—resulting in performances that sound natural, unforced and marked by undeniable sincerity.
Willie wastes no time getting to the heart of the story, relating the circumstantial information with exquisite poetic economy:
It was the time of the preacher
When the story began
With the choice of a lady
And the love of a man
How he loved her so dearly
He went out of his mind
When she left him for someone
That she’d left behind
He cried like a baby
He screamed like a panther
In the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
He went for a ride
It was the time of the preacher
In the year of ’01
Now the preachin’ is over
And the lesson’s begun
While Willie generally sings the song in a tone of empathetic sadness, he is more than up to the challenge when the full band enters the scene at the start of the third verse and he delivers the fabulous extended line “He cried like a baby/He screamed like a panther/In the middle of the night” with righteous intensity. Those lines communicate madness with far greater power than the earlier explanation, “He went out of his mind.” We feel the panic, confusion and outrage of a man betrayed—and we want to hear the rest of his story.
Willie shifts roles from narrator to lead character for the Eddy Arnold/Wally Fowler betrayal song, “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True.” Here we find the preacher coming home to an empty house with “no kisses there to greet me” but having a hard time believing that his beloved has left him for another man. Once you’ve felt the blow, you enter the grieving process, but the first stage of grief is always denial (“And my eyes filled with tears/And I must have aged ten years/And I couldn’t believe it was true”). Still in shock, the preacher makes a tentative step toward some kind of resolution (“And I’ll try to forgive/But I cannot forget”) but it’s obvious that the lesson mentioned in the first verse is still in its infancy. Compared to Eddy Arnold’s original with its high speed and blazing fiddles, Willie takes a more restrained approach, singing the first verse and chorus accompanied only by guitar. The kick drum then picks up the beat during the chorus to cue the instrumental passage, where we are treated to a fabulous guitar duet by Willie and Bucky Meadows before Willie returns with a strong finish. The song isn’t religious per se, but the music has the undeniable feel of gospel—suitable music for a preacher.
Alas, the preacher is unable to move beyond his understandable feelings of betrayal, as noted in the very brief reprise, “Time of the Preacher Theme.”
But he could not forgive her
Though he tried and tried and tried
And the halls of his mem’ry
Still echoed her lies
And he cried like a baby
And he screamed like a panther
In the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
And he went for a ride
It was a time of the preacher
In the year of O-one
Now the lesson is over
And the killin’s begun
Note that “the killin’s begun” before he actually engages in the murderous act, and to understand that particular curiosity, we have to consider Willie Nelson’s off-the-beaten-path Christian faith. In It’s a Long Story, Willie talks about how the book The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ by Levi H. Dowling had an enormous impact on his religious beliefs. In a fascinating essay by Blase S. Scarnati on Red Headed Stranger in the volume Walking the Line: Country Music Lyricists and American Culture, Scarnati quotes Dowling’s philosophy as it relates to the dualism of self (obviously, Dowling knew his St. Augustine) to explain the nature of the preacher’s pilgrimage:
. . . there are two selfs; the higher and the lower self. The higher self is the human spirit clothed with soul, made in the form of God. The lower self, the carnal self, the body of desires, is a reflection of the higher self, distorted by the murky ethers of the flesh . . . The lower self breeds hatred, slander, lewdness, murders, theft and everything that harms; the higher self is mother of the virtues of the harmonies of life (Dowling 22).
—Holmes TA, Harde R. Walking the Line : Country Music Lyricists and American Culture / Edited by Thomas Alan Holmes and Roxanne Harde. Lexington Books; 2013. p. 70
Although I violently disagree with the notion that intimate sex cannot possibly lead to spirituality, this is Willie’s story, not mine. “Time of the Preacher Theme” describes a man trapped in his lower self—on the verge of committing psychological suicide and the murder of two human beings. The killing begins with the preacher’s spiritual death.
The next two songs describe the manifestation of the lower self and the regretful aftermath; as such, the arrangements are appropriately sparse and Willie delivers the vocals without a hint of judgment against the perpetrator, expressing empathy for both the victims and the preacher (who certainly qualifies as a victim himself). The murder occurs in the hybrid song (called a medley on the album), “Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger.” Blue Rock, Montana is a fiction created by Edith Lindeman; her Red Headed Stranger hails from that non-existent locale. Willie picked up on that tidbit and had the preacher book a room in Blue Rock, “Still hoping that he was not right.”
So much for hope:
But he found them that evening
In a tavern in town
In a quiet little out-of-the-way place
And they smiled at each other
When he walked through the door
And they died with their smiles on their faces
They died with a smile on their face
We can safely assume that the instrument of death was a Colt .45 or knock-off, and we can also assume that there were witnesses to the act. Willie borrows the chorus from the Lindeman original to inform us that the witnesses were smart enough not to hightail it over to the sheriff’s office and report the dastardly deed:
Don’t boss him don’t cross him
He’s wild in his sorrow
He’s ridin’ and hidin’ his pain
Don’t fight him, don’t spite him
Let’s wait till tomorrow
Maybe he’ll ride on again
In modern parlance, the witnesses decided that this was one crazy bad-ass mother fucker and that avoidance represented their best chance of staying alive.
I’ve read comments on the Internet to the effect that it’s ironic that one of Willie Nelson’s signature songs is one he didn’t write. I don’t find it ironic at all—as noted previously, the man knew how to immerse himself in a song and make it come alive. Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” had been recorded by several artists before Willie chose it for inclusion in Red Headed Stranger, but only Willie Nelson captured the deep, aching sadness that accompanies the loss of someone who will live forever in your heart and in your memories. In the context of the storyline, this is the preacher reliving the initial separation from his wife; we can only assume that the woman never shared the reason for her tearful goodbye. The more important connection is thematic:
It was another song about lost love whose mantra—“Love is like a dying ember and only memories remain”—expressed the overall theme and tied all the loose ends together.
Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story (p. 243). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
Again, Willie holds your attention with a vocal as close to perfection as any. I also find myself moved by the subtle touches in the arrangement—I love Mickey Raphael’s sweet and subtle harmonica and I feel chills when I hear vocal harmony on the line, “We’ll stroll hand in hand again.” But it all comes back to Willie’s stunning vocal, surely one of the great vocal performances of all time.
We now leave behind the events that led to the preacher becoming the stranger who rides into town as we engage with the keystone song, “Red Headed Stranger.”
The red headed stranger from Blue Rock, Montana
Rode into town one day
And under his knees was a ragin’ black stallion
And walkin’ behind was a bay
The red headed stranger had eyes like the thunder
And his lips, they were sad and tight
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside
And his heart was heavy as night
Obviously, Lindeman couldn’t have imagined that the stranger was responsible for the death of his wife. Willie’s remake adds another layer of complexity to the story, and it certainly explains what happens after he rode into town:
A yellow haired lady leaned out of her window
An’ watched as he passed her way
She drew back in fear at the sight of the stallion
But cast greedy eyes on the bay
But how could she know that this dancin’ bay pony
Meant more to him than life
For this was the horse that his little lost darlin’
Had ridden when she was his wife
Oh, those evil blondes! Despite sharing her hair color, I hereby reject any connection to this greedy bitch . . . but did she really deserve the punishment meted out to her?
The yellow haired lady came down to the tavern
An’ looked up the stranger there
He bought her a drink, an’ he gave her some money
He just didn’t seem to care
She followed him out as he saddled his stallion
An’ laughed as she grabbed at the bay
He shot her so quick, they had no time to warn her
She never heard anyone say (“Dont cross him, don’t boss him . . . )
The only explanation I can come up with for filling her with holes is that Americans have long held the belief that guns actually solve problems that really aren’t that big of a deal. She touched my horse. You cut me off on the freeway. That shop clerk was rude. They threw me out of the bar. I just fucking felt like it.
The insult to end all insults comes in the final verse, where the stranger literally gets away with murder:
The yellow haired lady was buried at sunset
The stranger went free, of course
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s tryin’ to steal your horse
I guess they never heard of the concept of “excessive force” in the Old West. I’ve tried hard to interpret Lindeman’s lyrics as a proto-feminist protest of the non-person status of women in American society, but I get the feeling she thought it was just the way things were in them there olden days.
After a twenty-seven-second reprise of “Time of a Stranger,” where Willie tells us that the story has “only begun,” we are presented with an instrumental version of the Christian hymn, “Just As I Am.” While Willie’s primary audience of Sunday school attendees would have recognized the song and its meaning instantly, Catholics (like my parents), atheists (like me) and those who follow other religious traditions would have drawn a blank. The key verse in relation to the preacher’s story is the second:
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot
To thee whose blood can cleanse each spot
O Lamb of God, I come, I come
As Scarnati notes in his essay, the hymn represents a turning point in the narrative: “This gospel song, whose words remain unvoiced in the album, seems to interject into the narrative ideas of redemption and healing for the Stranger.” Redemption for a cold-blooded killer? Scarnati asks the same question: “But how can one transcend the lower self’s act of murder and madness. The Aquarian Gospel says that this can be accomplished only by a return to God through Love and the consequent re-establishment of harmony.”
Hmm. I might buy that in the context of the original song, where the Stranger acts on grief-induced impulse, but in Willie’s narrative, there were two other murders driven by his emotional state. Detectives in cop shows would call that a pattern—the preacher has a serious problem with impulse control and by my reckoning, there’s a pretty good chance he would murder again. And if he couldn’t forgive his wife, why does he deserve forgiveness?
Again, this is Willie’s story, so we’ll let him make his case for the preacher’s redemption.
Let the record show that Willie was already deeply into creative mode on the way back home from his trip to Steamboat Springs. “As I drove over a ridge and looked at the landscape below, I suddenly imagined how the preacher and his wife might have met” (ibid, p. 242). His imagined start of the courtship is covered in “Denver,” and like many of the songs on the album, this classic movie flashback is brief and to the point, with Willie successfully enriching the narrative in fifty-three seconds flat. Armed only with guitar and voice, Willie’s description of the pair’s meeting bears eerie similarities (underlined) to the scene of the future crime depicted in “Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger”:
The bright lights of Denver are shinin’ like diamonds
Like ten thousand jewels in the sky
An’ it’s nobody’s business where you’re goin’ or where you come from
And you’re judged by the look in your eye
She saw him, that evenin’ in a tavern in town
In a quiet little out-of-the-way place
And they smiled at each other as he walked through the door
And they danced with their smiles on their faces
And they danced with a smile on their face
That, my friends, is inspired songwriting. The impact of the contextual shift is shocking; the echoes of the murder scene imbue the image of the smiling couple gliding across the floor with more than a touch of sourness. The impact is intensified by the immediate insertion of the classic waltz, “O’er the Waves,” a piece that has become the gold standard for the expression of light-hearted gaiety (you may know the tune from the song, “The Loveliest Night of the Year”). Emphasizing that the couple did enjoy a period of happier times, we get a second instrumental in the form of “Down Yonder,” featuring Willie’s sister Bobbie on the 88s. Bobbie handles the upbeat tempo with playful ease, shifting to higher octaves as the song progresses to forestall boredom.
We return to the narrative with Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” which Willie described as “the kind of tune the preacher would use to sing himself to sleep.” It’s the longest song on the album (at 5:24) and serves as a showcase for the diverse talents of the band members. Jody Payne’s mandolin is sweet and clear, Mickey Raphael sounds wonderful on the har-mon-i-kay and once again, Bobbie Nelson knocks it out of the park with a nimble piano solo while the band takes a break. From a narrative standpoint, the song does succeed in evoking some empathy for the preacher, particularly the line, “It’s so cold lying here all alone.” On the other hand, the smart-ass in me wants to shout out, “Well, you wouldn’t be alone if you hadn’t offed your wife!” but I’m reminded that he lost her before the murder took place.
The narrative connection of Scotty Wiseman’s “Remember Me (While the Candle Lights Are Gleaming” is tenuous at best. See if you can figure out why:
You told me once that you were mine alone forever
And I was yours ’till the end of eternity
But all those vows are broken now
And I will never be the same except in memory
Remember me when the candle lights’re gleaming
Remember me at the close of a long, long day
Excuse me, but how can she remember him if she’s dead? I forgive Willie for the flaw in the narrative because he sings the song so well and the band has a great time playing some good ol’ Western swing.
In contrast, Bill Callery’s “Hands on the Wheel” was an inspired choice to close the preacher’s story, another achingly beautiful song with a sparse arrangement and a deeply heartfelt vocal from Willie that (again) keeps your ears glued to every word he sings. We find the preacher as Willie first imagined him—in his golden years. And lo and behold, we find him with a boy and . . . a lady:
And in the shade of an oak, down by the river
Sit an old man and a boy
Settin’ sail, spinnin’ tales and fishin’ for whales
With a lady they both enjoy
Well, it’s the same damn tune, it’s the man in the moon
It’s the way that I feel about you
And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes
And I’ve found myself in you
And I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars
And I’ve nearly gone up in smoke
Now my hand’s on the wheel, I’ve something that’s real
And I feel like I’m goin’ home
According to Scarnati, the key couplet in those verses is “And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes/And I’ve found myself in you.” To support his position, he quotes from another Willie Nelson autobiography:
In Bill Callery’s song, “Hands on the Wheel,” The Stranger finds redemptive love through a woman by just simply looking into her eyes. Jesus, in The Aquarian Gospel, confirms his divinity by not succumbing to the carnal, lower, side of his love for a beautiful woman, but rather remains grounded in the higher self. Nelson described this key passage for him in The Aquarian Gospel:
One of [Jesus’] lessons was the lesson of divine love, where He met this beautiful lady in the chambers and she was playing a harp and she was the most beautiful creature He’s ever seen in his life, and He fell in love with this girl. It’s the most beautiful story in the world because that was His reason for being here, to show divine love to all mankind. Here he was being tempted by this most beautiful creature on earth, but He remained strong. He stayed Jesus, and stayed divine love personified (Nelson and Shrake 115)
Through transcendent love, the Stranger, too, has moved from the killing and hatred of the lower self to redemption and harmony of the higher self.
—Holmes TA, Harde R. Walking the Line : Country Music Lyricists and American Culture / Edited by Thomas Alan Holmes and Roxanne Harde. Lexington Books; 2013. p. 74
Willie provided a slightly different take on the song in It’s a Long Story:
To show the preacher’s desperation, it seemed like my story needed a prayer. “I looked to the stars, tried all the bars,” said “Hands on the Wheel,” the last song in the set, “and I’ve nearly gone up in smoke.” Finally, though, the preacher could get his hands on the wheel of something real. And he was coming home. Home might be a dream. Home might be death. Or home might just mean the end of the record.
Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story (pp. 243-244). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
At the end of the day, both interpretations address the fundamental question: “Why did Willie make the Stranger a preacher?” Essentially, the fall of a preacher has more impact than say, the fall of a grocery clerk or the IT tech. The preacher was fully aware of how far he strayed from scripture when he succumbed to jealousy, murdered his wife and her lover and killed a woman for touching his dead wife’s horse. That heightened awareness would have made his path to redemption a very thorny path indeed—his sins were magnified by the nature of his occupation. As he struggled to reach the higher self, recollections of the sermons he gave on obeying the Ten Commandments and giving oneself to Jesus combined with the memory of how the love of his life died with a smile on her face from a bullet he fired would have made redemption seem like a Sisyphean task. In allowing the murderous preacher to achieve some form of redemption, Willie is expressing his firm belief that none of us are hopeless and that we all have a shot at reaching the higher self.
Willie seems to have forgotten that “Hands on the Wheel” was not the last song on. Red Headed Stranger ends with one of Willie’s tunes, the instrumental “Bandera.” It’s a lovely, slow-tempo instrumental with the feel of a great closing song, marked by classical echoes featuring arpeggiated guitar, mournful and bluesy harmonica, and Bobbie’s lovely piano contribution. A surprising number of wannabe music critics have searched high and low for the meaning of the song’s title, starting their quest with the definition of the Spanish word “bandera,” which means “flag.” They could have saved a whole lot of time and energy by reading readily available biographies. Bandera is a town in Texas, “The Cowboy Capital of the World.” It’s also the place to which Willie retreated after his break with Nashville . . . and the place where he looked into a woman’s eyes and married her.
Red Headed Stranger may not be a perfect narrative, but it tells a compelling story involving the struggles of ever-imperfect humanity. That story is strengthened to the nth degree by Willie Nelson’s then-radical decision to throw the recording bible out the window and record an album full of songs stripped of gloss, revealing the natural beauty of music. Too many concept albums are loaded with pretense, endless overdubs and layers of studio magic. Those records may sound impressive and important at first, but when you cut through the façade you find a creaky structure filled with songs that simply don’t stand up under scrutiny. The songs used to build Red Headed Stranger form a structure with “good bones,” and when you place those songs in the hands of an artist like Willie Nelson, you’re going to wind up with an honest-to-god masterpiece.
I read that Willie performed at the Palomino Festival just last week at the age of 89 and is now in the midst of a nationwide tour. He lost his sister Bobbie earlier this year, so it’s good to see him out there immersing in the healing power of music.
I also learned that they still refer to Willie as “one of the main figures of outlaw country.” Willie really wishes they wouldn’t do that.
Along with Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard, Waylon and I were being put in another category outside the box of straight-ahead country. The labels were many, from ‘progressive country’ to ‘outlaw country’ to ‘renegade rock.’ Critics struggled to find the right words, and for my money, they never did. I would have preferred no label at all.
Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story (p. 230). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
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